The Civil War is our nation’s defining convulsion — or as novelist Robert Penn Warren put it, our Homeric conflict. It was the bloody resolution of what it means to be American: how we think of liberty, democracy, ‘state’s rights,’ race, citizenship, even who qualifies as a human being. All of these were on that chopping block.
So it’s not surprising that playwright Catherine Bush’s attempt to link the death throes of Robert E. Lee’s army with a contemporary couple’s unhappy road trip is a metaphor stretched too far. In ‘The Road to Appomattox,’ Lee loses his last battles, of course, but it’s the couple who are diminished by the comparison, and not in an amusing way, a case of small-minded quarrels looking humorous in the face of vast, violent destinies being thrashed out. We have a brilliant but desperate general trying to find rations for his starving troops while the Confederacy itself deservedly dies around him. In this company, Steve and Jenny Weeks are, at best, only intermittently entertaining, let along enlightening.
Actually, they don’t even seem particularly necessary. Bush is playwright-in-residence at Virginia’s Barter Theatre. In a program note, she explains that the Barter’s producing artistic director asked her to write a play about Robert E. Lee. Faced with the task of making the South’s bearded saint into a flesh-and-blood character on stage, she oddly chose to set Lee’s plight against a modern couple tracking his retreat via roadside historical markers. The husband (a sullen Jeff Swearingen) recently became a “buffy” — a Civil War buff — having found an old rebel cap and a mysterious military message tucked away in his great-great-grandfather’s trunk. He’s now the obsessive sort who drags his reluctant wife (the eye-rolling Catherine DuBord) to every battlefield he can find. Anyone might sympathize whose father did the same.
But this set-up is an odd choice because it’s not clear how it humanizes Robert E. Lee. One could dispense with Steve and Jenny entirely from ‘Appomattox,’ and Lee would not fade into the distant and opaque past. His plight is pretty vivid. What happens instead, on Rodney Dobbs’ bare-wood-and-stretched-canvas set, is that scenes alternate between the contemporary couple and General Lee — and ‘Road’ tries to equate the two situations. It also offloads a fair amount of historic context via an academic expert who conveniently stops by on his motorcycle. He fears the Weekses may be stranded and offers to help. He then sticks around to serve as both a walking bibliography and, in actor Kevin Moore’s overly forceful performance, a studly temptation for the wife.
Tom Stoppard certainly makes this stuff look easy, the way he spins past and present together, the way his characters hatch relevant cultural and personal interpretations like butterflies. That Stoppard was Bush’s model seems clear. It turns out Jenny Weeks may hate Civil War history, but she’s a scientist, so the Second Law of Thermodynamics gets enlisted here. Bush applies it to the decline of the South and the deterioration of a marriage and the fall of Humpty Dumpty and Lee’s inability to unite his shattered corps — and one senses entropy getting tied on everything as an attractive bow. But the similarity Bush sees uniting these figures — they’re “stuck” in some fashion and entropy is setting in — is so broad as to provide no deeper insight than the one we’ve already apprehended: A marital dispute can indeed be like a miniature Civil War, especially when both sides are near the end.
I concede Bush’s basic dramatic ploy — to tie an historic upheaval to present-day people and illuminate both — can be a worthy one (consider Suzan-Lori Park’s ‘Top Dog / Underdog’ where Lincoln’s assassination shapes two black hustlers’ lives). But the backstory Bush supplies the Weekses — how they became emotionally stuck — feels disconnected from the rest of the proceedings. By the end, one of the characters has been more or less kidnapped, and a possible historical mystery is left unsolved. Yet improbably — spoiler alert, well, no, not really — none of the characters seems to care.
The great Southern historian C. Vann Woodward has noted that although the Civil War is our national tragedy, it produced no great play, no outstanding poem or novel (‘The Red Badge of Courage’ comes closest, perhaps, although it, like ‘The Road to Appomattox,’ ignores race entirely). Yet Woodward argues that this literary failure was compensated by the brilliant prose stylists of the day who wrote about the war in memoirs, essays and speeches: Lincoln, Sherman, Grant, Chesnut, Twain. I bring this up because much of what Lee says in Bush’s play — he has some of the best lines here — is derived directly from personal accounts, including that of his aide-de-camp, Lieutenant Colonel Walter Taylor.
Taylor was one of the early proponents of the ‘Lost Cause’ myth (the white, romanticized reinterpretation of the Confederate war effort as a noble, failed resistance to Northern aggression, a resistance that magically had little to do with defending slavery). And I bring all that up because that’s not really how Taylor comes across here. And in her program note, Bush makes the improbable claim that Lee — by admirably, sensibly rejecting any attempt at continued resistance against the North through guerrilla warfare — helped re-unite the country as much as Lincoln did.
Really? Well, no. Not really.
That is, not unless Lee risked his political future by passing the 13th amendment, banishing slavery. And not unless Lee got a bullet in the back of the head for his efforts — becoming a martyr who united the country in grief, shame and horror.
In other words, although Bush describes herself as a native Northerner who was understandably wary of the mythology surrounding Lee, she’s gone to some lengths portraying him as a leader trapped in a hopeless situation. But his are mostly tactical problems, problems of supply and troop movement. The only moral quandary Lee faces is one he recalls from four years before, when he chose his home state of Virginia over his military oath to the United States. And that particular case of being “stuck” doesn’t seem especially pertinent to the Weekses’ domestic discord.
At the end of ‘The Road to Appomattox,” when Lieutenant Colonel Taylor (Matt Holmes), confesses to Lee that he cannot walk out with his commanding officer and face surrendering to Grant, that quiet moment is more convincing, more touching than any of the noise the Weekses generate. Other scenes with Lee might be equally as affecting if, under Susan Sargeant’s direction, Robert Banks didn’t play the general as bombastic and sarcastic. Lee was universally hailed for his kindness and dignity (not for nothing was he called the ‘last gentle knight’). When Lee does get sharp with an underling, it would be all the more meaningful, more cutting, if it came from someone who doesn’t bellow.
Recently, the Contemporary Theatre of Dallas has been living up to its name by presenting local premieres of new plays — like ‘The Road to Appomattox.’ Three huzzahs and a round of bourbon for this welcome and worthy effort. One sincerely hopes the company continues to do so — with better scripts. The lessons we might take from General Grant in his punishing and relentless pursuit of Lee apply here.
Learn from early mistakes. And persistence can pay off.